- The Washington Times - Friday, February 10, 2012

“Guys, Valentine's Day is not that complicated. Give - and you shall receive.” This is a new low. A Super Bowl ad basically pimped out the women of America for Valentine's Day. Buy her something pretty, and she’ll put out. It’s not what you’d call a romantic proposition.

But then, romance is not exactly flourishing today. Expectations for love have dropped precipitously. Even people’s fantasy lives have been ratcheted down. Rihanna doesn’t hope to be “the only girl” her guy will ever love - just to feel like she is, for one night.

So what happened to romance? How did we get to the point where folks selling flowers can suggest they’re throwing in a night of passion for the cost of the bouquet? When did we lose touch with love that’s romantic and tender, passionate and chivalrous?

Ironically, we messed up love by trying to be too romantic. Or too Romantic, rather, with a capital R. About 250 years ago, the intellectual fad called Romanticism swept Europe. Blame it on a reaction against the overdose of reason we call the Enlightenment. Or blame it on Rousseau and “Man is born free, but everywhere is in chains.” Wherever it came from, the Romantic rage for pursuing personal liberation, authenticity and intense feelings at all costs reshaped many things in its own image - including love.


Unfortunately, Romanticism slammed into love at a particularly delicate point in the history of romantic relationships. In northwestern Europe for several hundred years leading up to the late 18th century, pragmatic arranged marriages had been yielding ground to love matches. Women had more say in choosing their mates. They got to go with the guy they loved, not the one their family picked. Young people were increasingly free to find each other. Only they were expected to act like grown-ups about it, not like children. They weren’t supposed to behave like irresponsible Romeos and Juliets, giving way to every impulse, never thinking beyond the adventure of the moment. They were expected to keep in mind that the choices they made in youth would affect their long-term happiness. That’s the lovely ideal we can still see in Jane Austen’s novels: Young women arrange their own marriages in the most delightful way possible - by falling in love with men they approve of, admire and can reasonably trust with their future happiness.

That’s the apple cart Romanticism upset. The Romantics somehow managed to sell the idea that prudence in relationships was a terrible mistake. People came to believe that thinking practically about the future would only ruin the spontaneity of authentic love. Compared to the agony and the ecstasy of Romantic passion, lifelong happiness started to look really boring. Romanticism gave us something different to aim for - not happiness, but liberation. Instead of a love that promised you happily ever after, you looked for a passion that would upend your life and break you out of conventional living.

But does happiness still seem so boring? At this point, we can look back on about 200 years of breaking all the rules to pursue liberation, authenticity and intensity - alternating with periods when Victorian types tried vainly to put a lid on the whole thing. The result is that we don’t seem to be left with either happy endings or grand Romantic passions. Those intense Romantic emotions have mostly been painful ones, and what a lot of us are feeling now is the next-morning headache. Romantic illusions have distracted us from pursuing happiness. But in the end, we’ve seen through the illusions, and Romanticism has given way to modern cynicism about love - right down to Super Bowl ads selling it for the cost of a nice flower arrangement.

Here’s a better idea for Valentine's Day. How about we go back behind modern cynicism and Romantic illusions to Jane Austen and see if we can learn from her about the kind of love that might actually make us happy?

Elizabeth Kantor is author of “The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After” (Regnery, forthcoming).